Legendary NHRA car owner and crew chief, Roland Leong passed away Dec. 29. He was 79.
Born and raised on the Island of Oahu, Leong took to fast cars when hot rod culture made its way to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 50s. He spent a lot of time hanging around a local speed shop which served to throw gasoline onto an already growing flame. “I remember taking my mother’s 1959 Oldsmobile out at night, promising her that I wouldn’t race, but I didn’t keep my promise very often,” Leong noted in the Sept/Oct issue of Vintage Motorsport.
Leong became a successful gas dragster racer in Hawaii but knew the real action was in California. His mother lined up a job for him at Jim Nelson and Dode Martin’s Dragmaster Company in Carlsbad, Calif. and Leong headed east in the early ’60s.
While at Dragmasters, Leong cut his teeth doing all the work that would serve him well throughout his career. Everything from rebuilding engines and chassis painting to sweeping the floors and bathroom duty. He also began to see just what it took to run a successful race team.
Fellow Hawaiian racer Danny Ongais also made the mainland move with Leong and worked Dragmasters along with racing their cars. The Hawaiian duo worked together in 1964 winning the Top Gas class at the NHRA Winternationals in Pomona.
Leong had ambitions of being a Top Fuel driver but infamously crashed at more than 191 mph at Lions dragstrip in Long Beach during his first run in a nitro car. His mentor, Keith Black, was frightened by the event and suggested Leong crew chief the Greer/Black/Prudhomme car he had been running. “I agreed and I hired the “Snake” on the spot,” Leong recalled.
Recognizing the hardcore racer within one other, Don Prudhomme and Leong quickly became a team to be reckoned with. Winning races up and down California, and famously claiming the 1965 Winternationals and U.S. Nationals.
Though, the flame burned rather quickly and the duo parted ways 1966 with Prudhomme going out on his own and Leong continuing on his path to a legendary car owner and tuner.
“He was my buddy, my brother,” said Prudhomme to Phil Burgess, NHRA. “There’s probably no one in this sport that I was closer to than Ro. I’m so sorry to see him go, but at least he’s no longer suffering. I’m going to miss him.”
Leong continued to have success with Winternationals and U.S. Nationals victories in 1966 (driven by Mike Snively) and in 1969 switched to Funny Cars noting the rise in popularity and the larger canvas for sponsorship opportunities.
Leong’s vibrant Funny Cars, emblazoned with the “Hawaiian” name became as ubiquitous as “Snake” or “Mongoose” within the scene and later the complementary sponsorships of Kings Hawaiian Bread and Hawaiian Punch leading to iconic liveries within the sport.
Leong retired from competition in the early ’90s but could be found at NHRA reunion events running vintage Funny Cars for private owners.